SANFORD

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28.8003
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-81.2733

SANFORD, Fla. — In an unusually low-key turn to a high-profile case, George Zimmerman was released without incident around midnight Sunday from a Florida county jail on $150,000 bail as he awaits his second-degree murder trial for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.

The neighborhood watch volunteer was wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans and carrying a paper bag. He walked out following another man and didn’t look over at photographers gathered outside. He then followed the man into a white BMW vehicle and drove away.

Moments before, two Seminole County sheriff’s vehicles blocked access to the intake building parking lot where Zimmerman was being released. Zimmerman emerged after two public information officers confirmed the credentials of the photographers outside.

No questions were shouted at Zimmerman, and he gave no statement.

His ultimate destination is being kept secret for his safety and it could be outside Florida.

As with the July 2011 release of Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted of murder in the death of her daughter, Zimmerman was released around midnight. But the similarities end there. Anthony was quickly whisked away by deputy sheriffs armed with semi-automatic rifles as angry protesters jeered her. While news helicopters briefly tracked her SUV through Orlando before she slipped from public view, there was no such pursuit of Zimmerman, who will have to return for trial.

Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester said at a hearing Friday that Zimmerman cannot have any guns and must observe a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. Zimmerman also surrendered his passport.

Zimmerman had to put up 10 percent, or $15,000, to make bail. His father had indicated he might take out a second mortgage.

Zimmerman worked at a mortgage risk-management company at the time of the shooting and his wife is in nursing school. A website was set up to collect donations for Zimmerman’s defense fund. It is unclear how much has been raised.

Bail is not unheard of in second-degree murder cases, and legal experts had predicted it would be granted for Zimmerman because of his ties to the community, because he turned himself in after he was charged last week, and because he has never been convicted of a serious crime.

Prosecutors had asked for $1 million bail, citing two previous scrapes Zimmerman had with the law, neither of which resulted in charges. In 2005, he had to take anger management courses after he was accused of attacking an undercover officer who was trying to arrest Zimmerman’s friend. In another incident, a girlfriend accused him of attacking her.

Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot Martin, 17, Feb. 26 inside the gated community where Zimmerman lived during an altercation. Martin was unarmed and was walking back to the home of his father’s fiancée when Zimmerman saw him, called 911 and began following him. A fight broke out — investigators say it is unknown who started it.

Zimmerman says Martin, who was visiting from Miami, attacked him. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which gives broad legal protection to anyone who says they used deadly force because they feared death or great bodily harm.

Zimmerman was not charged for over six weeks, sparking national protests led by Martin’s parents, civil rights groups and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Martin was black; Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is from Peru.

Earlier Sunday, Zimmerman’s attorney was working to secure the money for bail and a safe place for Zimmerman to stay. But residents in Sanford, where Martin was killed, didn’t expect a ruckus once Zimmerman was released.

City commissioners said they hadn’t received calls from nervous residents. Protesters didn’t show up outside the jail. And talk at one local coffee shop seldom focused on the case.

“It’s just kind of a non-issue now,” said Michele Church, a server at Mel’s Family Diner. “That’s pretty much all anybody in Sanford wanted, was an arrest, so it could be sorted out in the court system.”

On Friday, a Florida judge agreed to let Zimmerman out on $150,000 bail. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara has said there are several options for where Zimmerman should go, but would not disclose any of them. Lester on Friday indicated Zimmerman would be allowed to leave the state if arrangements with law enforcement could be made for him to be monitored. He will be fitted with an electronic device.

About a half-dozen photographers and cameramen camped outside the Sanford jail Sunday, focused on the door marked “Bonds Rooms,” where other people who had been arrested and released on bail exited. Zimmerman had entered the jail about a week earlier after more than a month of nationwide protests calling for his arrest.

“The mood in Sanford has calmed down tremendously,” said Sanford Commissioner Patty Mahany, whose district includes the neighborhood where Martin was killed. “I think now that people are able to see the justice system taking place, even though they understand it’s going to be quite slow, people are willing to just remain calm and really we’re all getting back to our daily routines.”

A spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office declined to release any information about whether they were increasing patrols or security.

Defense attorneys for other high-profile clients who awaited trial on bail have said Zimmerman should leave Florida and refrain from going out in public. Sanford residents say they aren’t expecting to see him around the neighborhood anytime soon.

“They’ve already said they’re going to move him to a safe place,” Church said. “Everyone has calmed down. That’s all anyone in Sanford wanted, an arrest.”

Meanwhile, Martin’s parents published a “Card of Thanks” in The Miami Herald obituary page Sunday. The note says Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin express their appreciation for all the public’s support since their son’s death. The notice includes a photograph of Trayvon Martin dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, similar to one he was wearing the evening he was killed.

“Words will never express how your love, support and prayers lifted our spirits and continue to give us the strength to march on,” the letter says.

SANFORD, Fla. — Before the charges that police botched the investigation of the shooting of an unarmed black teen, there were complaints that they went easy on an officer’s son who beat a black homeless man, or that officers pull over black kids for wearing the wrong color hat because they suspect gang associations.

The furor over the failure to charge a neighborhood watch captain for shooting Trayvon Martin to death is the latest episode to inflame racial tensions that have simmered between police and blacks in this Orlando suburb for years. And on Thursday, the department’s chief temporarily stepped aside.

Stanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. acknowledged the problems on Friday.

“The issues that have been brought to my attention regarding the black community and the Sanford police department go back 10 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.”

Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County’s NAACP, agreed. “There is no trust,” he said. “There is no confidence.”

Clayton spoke before Lee and a local prosecutor stepped aside Thursday. The chief was accused by critics of mishandling the investigation of 17-year-old Martin’s death.

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights probe and a special prosecutor appointed by the governor is examining the Feb. 26 shooting by watch captain George Zimmerman, 28. Police questioned but never charged Zimmerman in the shooting of the teen who was returning to a friend’s home after getting Skittles and an iced tea at a convenience store.

The failure to arrest Zimmerman — who said he shot in self-defense after Martin attacked him — and a delay in releasing 911 calls related to the shooting outraged Sanford residents who called it the latest example of bias against blacks.

Florida is among 21 states with a “Stand Your Ground Law,” which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. It lets police on the scene decide whether they believe the self-defense claim. In many cases, the officers make an arrest and leave it to the courts to work out whether the deadly force is justified.

In this case, however, police have said they are confident they did the right thing by not charging Zimmerman.

Some residents have proposed boycotting the Sanford Police Department by asking 911 dispatchers to send county sheriff’s officers rather than the Sanford police.

And Martin’s family said the resignations don’t’ go nearly far enough. They repeated demands Thursday that Zimmerman be charged.

“We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son,” said Martin’s father, Tracy.

Trayvon Martin

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SANFORD, Fla. — An unarmed black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain told his girlfriend he was being followed shortly before the confrontation that killed him, a lawyer said Tuesday as federal and state prosecutors announced they would investigate.

“’Oh he’s right behind me, he’s right behind me again,’” 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told his girlfriend on his cellphone, the Martin family’s attorney said.

The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” Another man asked, “What are you doing around here?’” attorney Benjamin Crump said.

The phone call that recorded Martin’s final moments was disclosed as the U.S. Justice Department opened a federal civil rights probe into the Feb. 26 shooting and the local prosecutor convened a grand jury to investigate.

The neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has not been charged and has said he shot Martin, who was returning to a gated community in Sanford after buying candy at a convenience store, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Police say Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.

The case has ignited racial tensions in this Orlando suburb of 53,500 people, sparking rallies and a protest in Gov. Rick Scott’s office on Tuesday. The Rev. Al Sharpton is joining Sanford city leaders at a town hall meeting later Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

Police say Zimmerman was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, and told police he had yelled out for help before he shot Martin.

Crump told reporters Tuesday it was Martin who cried out when a man bearing a 9mm handgun came at him.

Martin called his 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami several times on Feb. 26, including just before the shooting, Crump said. The discovery of the lengthy conversations, including one moments before the shooting, was made over the weekend by Martin’s father by checking his son’s cell phone log, Crump said.

“She absolutely blows Zimmerman’s absurd self-defense claim out of the water,” Crump said of Martin’s girlfriend, whose name was withheld.

Martin, who was in town from Miami to visit his father in Sanford, told the girl on his way back from the store he’d taken shelter the rain briefly at an apartment building in his father’s gated community, Crump said. Martin then told the girl he was being followed and would try to lose the person, Crump said.

“She says: ‘Run.’ He says, ‘I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast,’” Crump says, quoting the girl.

After Martin encountered Zimmerman, the girl thinks she heard a scuffle “because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech,” Crump said. The phone call ended before the girl heard gunshots.

The last call was at 7:12 p.m. Police arrived at 7:17 p.m. to find Martin lying face down on the ground.

Zimmerman was handcuffed after police arrived and taken into custody for questioning, but was released by police without being charged. Police have interviewed Zimmerman two times since then.

Crump called the treatment patently unfair and asked if Martin would have received the same treatment if he had been the shooter.
“We will not rest until he is arrested. The more time that passes, this is going to be swept under the rug,” Crump said.

Crump said he plans to turn over information about the call to federal investigators; a grand jury in Seminole County is also likely to subpoena the records. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also involved in the state case.

Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.

In this case, they said, it’s not clear whether Zimmerman had any actual law enforcement authority or if the Sanford Police Department did anything improper. Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.

“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”

Authorities may be hamstrung by a state “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force and does not require a retreat in the face of danger. Asked Tuesday if that law needs change, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said “it’s always positive to go back and think about existing laws.”

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it is sending its community relations service this week to Sanford to “address tension in the community.”

Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.

An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman has drawn more than 500,000 signatures at website Change.org. About 50 defense attorneys and protesters filled the lobby in the governor’s office Tuesday to deliver a letter seeking an independent investigation and a task force to study racial profiling. They applauded when Scott came out of his office to talk to them.

“I will make sure justice prevails,” Scott said. “I’m very comfortable that (state law enforcement) is going to do the right thing. They’re not going to let somebody do something wrong and get away with it.”

Sharpton is attending the town hall meeting at a local church Tuesday night to discuss how the investigation is being handled. Students rallied on Monday at Florida A&M University’s campus in Tallahassee and outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.